in defense of stuff

The other kids at Grad School are teasing me.

Not that this is particularly unusual; everybody teases everybody at Grad School.

Basically, now every time anyone says the word “props”, every head in the room turns to me, just waiting for some kind of long rant/ode to props. I am officially the resident Props Nerd.

I’ve been thinking about this and I realized that its not really props… I just love stuff. I like the amount of narrative a single object carries with it at all times.

In one of our classes, Roman Paska described a puppet peice that was a “love story between a match and a coffee bean”.  What I love most about stuff is that you never need to even act that out. You could just put a match and a coffee bean next to each other, say the phrase, and we would imagine the rest.

I have an assignment for an upcoming class where I am meant to bring in 6 random images that tell a story. In some ways, I would prefer to use objects. For example:

So, we have 4 objects: a radio flyer wagon, a space helmet, a duck decoy, and a hair dryer.

scenarios include:

1. The duck is sitting in the wagon, sporting the hilariously large space helmet. The hair dryer is affixed as an engine in the back.

2. Similarly, the duck is pulling the wagon, which contains the space helmet, and the sad hair dryer trails along behind. I call this one “engine failure”, or “need a ride to Houston”.

3. New protagonists: the wagon is turned on its side like a little house. Inside the helmet and hair dryer live in bliss. Perhaps the duck is led by the hair dryer cord like a dog.

4. The wagon is upside down, wheels in the air. Atop it sit the helmet and the duck. From under the wagon we see the hair dryer cord poking out.

Not only are these four stories, they could also all be one long story! Fun!

So many artists have manipulated objects, twisting, changing, or simply reminding us of their various meanings, that it seems silly to even try to get into that here. Instead I will just pop up a few of my favorites:

Jeff Koons’ vacuums in glass cases (vacuum sealed vacuums!)

Andy Goldsworthy’s nature sculpture.

Duchamp’s “In advance of a Broken Arm”.

Rachel Whiteread’s resin cast of the inside of a water tower.

Gabriel Orozco’s little invasions into the real world — This one is called “Cats and Watermelons”

All of these peices are doing very different things — telling very different stories, and very different kinds of stories.

Whiteread’s water tower, for example, is still, tragic, and sad. It feels abstractly sculptural too, like “high art”. Its also monumental. Like many of her works it makes us feel a sense of loss for the object that was peeled away to reveal the art underneath. Orozco’s cats are more gentle. They are amusing, dynamic and funny. We sense his love for the color, beauty, and absurdity of the object.

The Shovel is also funny — completely manipulating this sense of object and narrative (I always imaging the cartoon dad from Calvin and Hobbes falling and breaking his arm shoveling snow) — it gives us a starting point for imagining. But it also has a sense of danger too it. It is usually exhibited hung from the gallery ceiling, swaying menacingly back and forth. It makes us realize that snow shovels are kind of large, sharp, and scary.

So, I’m a complete Props Nerd. To me, these things are what theater is. The water tower is Salome — operatic in tone, but also personal, and tragic. Its the texture the wood left behind, and the city rearing up around it, distorted by the sculpture. The cats and watermelons are the Three Sisters… Natasha is just rearranging objects by color, making the world increasingly more disconcerting. Its funny, but also bitter and dark. It seems pedestrian, but speaks to a much wider context. More serious events.

Go on kids. Tease away.


About meredithries

Meredith is a set designer living in Brooklyn, NY. See her work at: This is a repurposed old blog. Because continuity is important. Malaprop is a malapropism
This entry was posted in art onstage, Meredith Ries, props, set design, set dressing, theater, theater design, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to in defense of stuff

  1. Eric Hart says:

    You? Rant about props? I can’t imagine 🙂

  2. Caitlin says:

    You’re back! Fantastic. I love pictures. Especially whimsical pictures with narrative. Stuff is an art form. It is a religion we share. Hence our eternal bond.

  3. Kristen says:

    I am a complete stranger who appreciates your views (and who has also worked at The Public and with Wilson Chin–small world, eh?) but just wanted to say I take delight in ephemeral animation too. The non-humanoid, non-animaloid (that isn’t a word, is it?) objects that nevertheless tell a story, and indeed can tell quite complex ones with a bit of manipulation. I had a conversation with a practitioner of this style of object theatre this past Monday, Nenagh Watson (a research fellow at the Central School of Speech and Drama, fascinating person) and a cheeky undergrad approached her and said, “so your puppetry is essentially like, if I gave you my jacket here, you could tell a story with it?” and Nenagh said “Your jacket here has arms, a neck, a waist, a chest–It’s already most of a person. It’s a puppet in its own right, and tells a human-specific story no matter what you do with it. But your umbrella there…that tells a new story. An umbrella-specific story. Particularly if I snap the handle off.” The undergrad snatched her umbrella away, but it was a fair point. In losing the handle the umbrella would lose its usefulness, its tool-ness, its tie to humanity. It would be free–form without function, neh?

    Anyway, I’ve enjoyed your writing. Warm regards.

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